Why we should all celebrate procrastination

Stuart Eglin inspired me to do my first blog ‘The Novice Blogger’.  He is a tad eccentric (in a creative arts way), has many interests, and enjoys the creative process of thinking differently.  During a peer to peer coaching supervision session we got on to the subject of blogging and with his usual calm energy he helped me to produce my first 500 words and publish.  In this guest post he shares some thoughts on getting beyond procrastination!  Find out more about Stuart here.

Turning a negative into a positive – displacement therapy to get stuff done

So we all find it difficult at times to apply ourselves to the things that need doing, when there are lots of things that don’t need doing, but we want to do because they are fun! This morning I was supposed to be settling to editing an article, something which I feel like I have been working on since the beginning of the 18th century. I have been sitting down to do this for weeks now, and only succeeding maybe one in six times. The rest of the time is applied to other useful things, but not the task in front of me. It is human nature to grow increasingly frustrated by this problem. We spend time grumbling at ourselves, infuriated by the inability to settle to the task in hand. We beat ourselves up for being a hopeless procrastinator. And we convince ourselves that we are the only person in the world to suffer from this laziness affliction. So… perhaps a good way to deal with this problem is to begin by nurturing ourselves through it. Instead of becoming angry about it, turn these feelings upside down. The negative feelings don’t help anyway. They just create a downward spiral that gets us nowhere. The best way to turn these feelings upside down is to turn the problem into something positive.

Have you ever noticed that as a deadline looms and the task isn’t getting done, we find countless other things to do and just get on with them. Instead of seeing this as a negative thing, let’s use ‘displacement activity’ to increase our productivity. It’s a great way to clear backlogs of papers, and wipe away the dust. There must be a good book to be written on the subject of everything that can be done when you’re trying to avoid doing the main task of the day. Except that you probably wouldn’t get round to writing it, because you would find heaps of other things to do. Let’s face it, doing emails, making phone calls, other tasks that are slightly less forbidding than the one we are procrastinating over are good ways of avoiding doing that difficult task. So, rather than feeling bad about doing other things, get on and celebrate it. It is surely better to be incredibly productive in displacement activity rather than just frozen into inactivity like a rabbit in the car headlights. As soon as we recognise that we are procrastinating over something, put it away. Go through the list of things to do, the email backlog etc. and get on with whatever appeals. Limit the time on this. Spend, say, an hour in this way. Aim to complete as much displacement activity as possible. Then, at the end of the hour check in with the frame of mind. We often find that in doing this we have achieved a state of flow. From this state we can then get started on the difficult task.

Counter-intuitive – dont eat the frog first, eat the chocolate then see where that gets you

This approach seems counter-intuitive. Everything we have read suggests that we should ‘eat the frog’ first. We should do the difficult thing before we reward ourselves. But that misses the point of what is happening in procrastination. This is not hapless laziness – no, the turmoil going on in the state of procrastination is something much deeper. There is a battle going on at some level between the creative source from where we find inspiration and the insidious critic that lurks deep within us criticising everything that we do. Because this is not laziness, we need to coax ourselves into action. That is why I am suggesting an approach that gets us being productive first. The more we act as the strict disciplinarian to overcome procrastination the worse it will get. We end up demoralising ourselves. Worse, we start to describe ourselves as a Procrastinator. Giving ourselves that label is incredibly destructive. There really isn’t a special breed of human called a procrastinator. It is something which we all do from time to time. And it is something which we can all overcome. Now, let’s go back a step and take a look at that first hour or so when we are going to just get on with things, anything other than the thing we are procrastinating over.

Technology that motivates – Focus booster, Instant Boss, Pomodoro – different ways to push through the first hour

There are a number of small applications, tools and apps that can be used to help with this first step. The reason they work is because they create urgency and the sense of a deadline. Look up the three set out above and you will find useful timers that give you chunks of time with short breaks in between. For example, with ‘Instant Boss’ it is possible to set the timer to work for 5 sessions of 10 minutes each with a 2 minute break between each session. Set the timer and it ticks down as you work. Now not only are you being incredibly productive, but you are also racing against the clock. Over the space of an hour you are going to produce an enormous level of productivity. Give it a try. You will be surprised. Then once the hour is up it is time to take a 5 minute break before turning to that task you have been avoiding. Instead of starting this task cold with nothing to show for your time, you now have a productive hour behind you and are ready to tackle the task. If you have achieved sufficient flow, the work may well just move forward without a problem. In which case you have overcome the challenge, so good luck and on you go! If not, then there is one more technique that is worth attempting.

Blasting through Blocks – Julia Cameron’s technique

Sometimes we have done the hour and been really productive, but it is not enough. We are still stuck. There is a technique developed by Julia Cameron which really helps if the procrastination is that embedded. It takes half an hour, working through an exercise from Julia Cameron’s book ‘The Artist’s Way’. The exercise is called ‘Blasting through Blocks’ and is well worth a try if you are still finding it difficult to get on with things. She focuses on the two big blockages – anger and fear. By bringing them into sharp relief we can unravel all sorts of baggage about fear of success, avoiding the risk of failure and so on. The key to the whole thing is that it really does work. It uses a simple set of questions which are worked through before settling to the project. You are basically looking for issues of resistance. The questions are:

  1. What resentments do you have in connection with this project?
  2. What fears do you have that relate to this project?
  3. Is that everything, or is there something else?
  4. What do you stand to gain by not doing this work?
  5. Make a deal with yourself – “Okay, Creative Force, you take care of the quality and I’ll take care of the quantity:”

Try working through these and see what happens. Don’t just work through them in your head. Sit with a piece of paper and actually answer each question. The actual act of writing out each answer is important. Then look back at what you have written – it should reveal something to you. The balance of fears with what you will lose helps to shift us forwards. Then finally, making the deal and just getting on with it propels us forwards. Now we are working on something to just produce and be done with it. We should have moved aside the army of imaginary critics, the fear of failure, the fear of success, the sense of being unable to do it. We just get on with it.

Check why you are procrastinating – are you just keeping back from doing something to avoid wasting time

Finally, sometimes we procrastinate for good reason. So, it is well worth looking at the task with a clear critical eye. Is the reason we are procrastinating a good one? Are we avoiding doing the task because:

  • There is a good chance that the task won’t be needed after all. Someone may decide nearer the deadline that they don’t need what you have been asked to do.
  • This is something you decided to do some time ago and now the moment has passed. There is no real value in doing the task anymore.
  • You can’t get to this task until you have done something else first. In that case, you need to go and do that other thing first. So, go do it!
  • You may be holding off on doing the task because your intuition tells you that now is not the right time. For example, you may have more information or a wider context if you wait before doing the task. In other words, you are delaying for a very good reason.

Using music and understanding how it helps, using silence

Last night I surfed the internet and found musical downloads from Christian Fennesz (the guy who contributed to the last track on David Sylvian’s album, ‘Blemish’) – beautiful and mysterious music. And I found heaps of material in the archive of Resonance FM which is a London based music station broadcasting over the airwaves and the internet. Some interesting stuff here. I’ve also been listening to tracks by Farmers Manual and Autreche – strange noises, but interesting experiences still. On the CD player, I’m listening to Eno, Sylvian and a Radiohead album which is growing in my consciousness. This morning my concentration was helped by listening to late Beethoven string quartets – Beethoven, Bartok and Bach really help me to concentrate. And why am I telling you all this? Sometimes music can permeate into the activities of the brain, and settle a distracted mind so that we can find our way to the work that we need to do. It is worth experimenting with different types of music. For me, when I am at my most distracted and find myself struggling to settle, there is something in ambient music which calms me and gets me working. After a few minutes I am able to observe myself working away and smile. Something has settled me – and it just seems to work. Give it a try – there will be something out there that just calms you into the work.

Go easy on yourself

So, we’ve tried all of the above techniques and it’s just not working. At this point it’s worth thinking about just going for a walk, or rescheduling the task to another time. It’s unproductive to beat yourself up. And it’s really unhelpful to decide that you are a procrastinator. That’s a label that will very quickly become self-fulfilling! None of us are intrinsic procrastinators. All of us have the ability to procrastinate. And it happens for all of the reasons I have set out above. And we can be sure that sometimes we just need to trick ourselves into work. Sometimes we just need to be clear that there is a reason we are not settling. And sometimes we may just be too out of energy to get there. That is the time to go and do something completely different!

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